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The word “style” typically refers to the author’s writing style, while “voice” describes how the point-of-view character communicates to the reader. They are sometimes used interchangeably, and there is some overlap, so that’s why they’re in the same article.
Let’s tackle style first since it’s simpler. Is your prose florid, poetic, and circumspect, or is it short, choppy and direct? Do you write long paragraphs and sentences, or short ones? Big words or simple words? Lots of metaphor or not? Do you act as a narrator to your reader, or go deep into a point of view and not get in between the reader and the character? What kinds of stories and themes do you usually write about? Are there commonalities between your characters and plots across your works? Are you a clean, G-rated author or do you write adult themes?
In some ways, your style determines your target readership. For example, a G-rated Christian author writing at an average reading level will appeal to a very different group of readers than, say, an English PhD author who packs their prose with metaphor, complexity, dark comedy, and violence.
All of those things, and anything else that differentiates your stories from those of other authors, are what make up your style.
Moving on to Voice, which arises from the point of view character in your story. Voice is built up from that character’s:
- dialogue (sentence structure, word choice, accents, catch phrases),
- life outlook (optimistic vs. pessimistic, religious vs. secular, trusting vs. suspicious, etc.), and
- backstory (social class, education level, occupation, past trauma, and so forth).
Character voice arises from all the things that make one person different from another person, which are ultimately driven by the character’s life experience.
How do you create a character voice? By studying real people (and characters in well-written stories).
What does your character believe about the world? Is it fair? Is it just? Is science how we improve our lives, or is it religion/faith—or something else? Are they educated? Do they show it? How do they react to new things, with curiosity or fear? Do they love freedom, or do they want to control people? Or both? Do they say one thing and do the other, or are they true to their word? What are their soft spots (animals, kids, old movies, teddy bears, etc)? What are they uncompromising about? What made them this way? Are they racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. or are they open minded? Why? What are their hobbies? What is their passion? What do they love? What do they hate? Do they tend to have strong opinions, or are they easily swayed into believing in whatever comes along?
All these things and more shape how your character reacts to the world and to events in the story. Those reactions determine their feelings, thoughts, speech, decisions/actions, and how they tell their own story—which is where character voice comes through.
When you write in a deep point of view, you write it through the character, like you’re looking at the world through their eyes, but more importantly, through all those filters in their mind.
If you’re not writing deep point of view (that is, omniscient or cinematic), their voice still going to affect their actions and dialogue, even if you don’t have access to their thoughts.
Here’s an exercise for working on voice. Pick two people you know personally, and pick people that are as different as possible. For example, pick two from your family, school, job, club, sports team, etc. Now figure out what makes them tick (outlook on life, backstory, etc. listed above) and write down some notes.
Now, take those two different people and put each one of them in the same story, such as your favorite book or movie. Imagine how different the story would have been with your Grandpa as the protagonist in The Hobbit, versus your cousin, your best friend, your coach—how different their character thoughts, speech, decisions, and actions would all be, and how different the story would be from their point of view. That’s their voice.
You often hear publishers say “we’re looking for a fresh voice”, which often means multiple things. First, they’re looking for authors who can write character voice well, which is required to get published. Second, they don’t want a carbon copy of another famous character. They have enough Harry Potters and Katniss Everdeens. Third, they want a character voice that has mass appeal so they can sell books, so please make your character marketable (that is, they have strength of will and are enjoyable to read about, and not some unsympathetic psycho, sad sack, or jerk).
How complex and layered can you make your character’s voice? I think you have to be very careful with changing it too much during a story, especially if you write for younger audiences or lower reading levels. People growing up on TV, movies, and low-grade fiction generally expect characters to have stable, even archetypal moods and not change much in the story (think of any superhero movie, for example). You also have to be careful not to linger too long in negative moods (e.g. whining, aggression, cruelty) for your protagonists and vice versa with antagonists, lest you make your protagonist too unsympathetic and your antagonist too sympathetic.
Hopefully that helps clear up the differences between style and voice, and how voice is linked to point of view. Good luck!